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In a time of dramatic political unrest, film has a unique opportunity to look toward the past for insight on our present. Sam Pollard’s searing documentary MLK/FBI retells the story of the Civil Rights Movement from the perspective of the government, showing how FBI founder J. Edgar Hoover and former Director of Domestic Intelligence William C. Sullivan targeted and harassed the late Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., until his assassination in 1968.
MLK/FBI depicts Hoover as a man who saw King as an existential threat. The film describes Hoover as feeling that Black people were more susceptible to “dangerous ideology” and that the movement needed to be contained before it succumbed to Communism. But what began as standard investigating quickly devolved into constant surveillance and personal attacks on King’s character.
Once Hoover became aware of King’s sexual promiscuity, he made it his mission to expose him to the world as a fraud. For the majority of the 60s, Hoover made King’s sex life the business of the FBI, tapping King’s phones wherever he went and placing bugs everywhere to collect audio of his sexual encounters. This culminated in Hoover sending King an infamous package containing alleged tapes of King having sex along with a letter largely considered to be encouragement for him to commit suicide.
The film goes on to analyze America’s fear of Black male sexuality in comparison to our country’s deification of the FBI’s presentation of upstanding white Christian masculinity. Essentially, the film acknowledges that Hoover’s fear of King came from his inability to reconcile sexual exploration with righteous intentions. He imposed his values on King and American society took his side; the film reminds us how unpopular King was, even as he received international acclaim for his work.
This story is told through a combination of archival footage, clips from film and television, images of documents, still photography and other materials. The score is simple and to the point, and the overall mood of the film is strictly informative, with very little editorializing or speculation. These choices make clear that Pollard (who has edited several Spike Lee films and directed 2017 doc Sammy Davis, Jr.: I’ve Gotta Be Me) approached the film with purely journalistic intentions. For the majority of the runtime, there are no talking heads; the voices of interviewees are heard over the images, with their names appearing in the left corner of the screen. Pollard waits to reveal the faces of his interviewees until the film’s final moments.
Perhaps Pollard made this choice so that present-day faces did not break up the fluidity of MLK/FBI’s historic imagery. Footage of Hoover and King are juxtaposed directly, creating a sense of narrative balance to the film. We are shown King giving a speech or meeting his collaborators and then immediately see Hoover’s response, highlighting the way his actions were fueled by a deep hatred for King. Notably, Pollard never gives us any footage of King responding to Hoover’s actions, emphasizing the depth of his pacifism. This makes clear that Hoover’s rivalry with King was one-sided; King kept the focus on his higher purpose, refusing to be bogged down by attacks on his character.
At a time when King’s legacy seems irrevocably sanitized by the white establishments that he died fighting against, any work that digs deeper into his life is an act of rebellion. Director Ava DuVernay began reframing King in 2014, with the thoughtful and devastating Selma, a film that effectively strips away the prevalent white gaze that has plagued Civil Rights Movement dramatizations. This is perhaps why the film — especially its depiction of former President Lyndon B. Johnson — was so deeply contested, earning pointed snubs in most categories at the Academy Awards the following year. MLK/FBI goes even further than Selma, implicating the entire white political establishment for being threatened by King as a political leader and a man.
Near the end of MLK/FBI, author David Garrow delivers the film’s most piercing statement: “The FBI was not a renegade agency. It was fundamentally a part of the existing mainstream political order.” Though the film only highlights the efforts of Hoover, it’s important to remember that white political figures were aware of what he was doing and let him continue. In 2020, this information may not feel revelatory, but there is something encouraging about an open acknowledgment of how the FBI, and by extension the government, got in the way of racial progress largely because of a conservative, puritanical ideology. And this ideology was able to take hold with Democrats in the White House.
MLK/FBI indeed serves as a chilling reminder that white supremacy is not solely a partisan problem; it’s a cruelty baked into the fabric of our political system, poisoning it at every level. Change comes when we allow ourselves to challenge the stories we have been told about our history.
Venue: Toronto Film Festival (TIFF Docs)
Production companies: Tradecraft Films
Director: Sam Pollard
Screenwriters: Benjamin Hedin, Laura Tomaselli
Producers: Benjamin Hedin
Executive producers: David Friend, Charlotte Cook, Jeffrey Lurie, Marie Therese Guirgis, Kate Hurwitz, Dana O’Keefe, Steven Farneth
Director of photography: Robert Chappell
Production designer: Dedalus Wainwright
Editor: Laura Tomaselli
Score: Gerald Clayton
Sales: Cinetic Media
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